Archive for March, 2011

Stochelo Rosenberg

Posted in Players with tags , , , , , , on March 31, 2011 by theguitarcave

Stochelo Rosenberg

Stochelo Rosenberg is one of the top Gypsy Jazz guitar players of the day and is also certainly one of my favorites. He embodies everything one thinks of when considering a guitar player in this style of music; brilliant rhythm and timing, ferocious soloing abilities, great compositional qualities and an endless stream of musical ideas with which to improvise. He comes from a very musical family and learned from his father and uncles, and his two cousins, Nonnie (bass) and Nous’che (rhythm guitar master) are the other members of The Rosenberg Trio. Based in the Netherlands TRT are probably, along with Bireli Lagrene, most responsible for the popularity of Gypsy Jazz today. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of other great players who are popular, especially in Europe, but TRT have established themselves world-wide as premier ambassadors of this style of music.

Stochelo has said many times that he learned to play by copying the great Django Reinhardt and it shows. While he has certainly expanded himself beyond being a mere imitator, he is very adept at capturing the vibe, ambiance and approach that Django pioneered. I’m sure there isn’t a Django side that Stochlo hasn’t internalized and you could probably wake him up in the middle of the night, force out onto his lawn, give him a guitar and make him play any of them, and he would be able to do it. Blindfolded. In 30 degree weather. Once again, almost all of the really great players in this style start at a very early age and grow up in a community where there is always music, and musical elders who can provide all of the assistance necessary to become a great musician. That isn’t everything though, as with any artist, the drive, discipline and will must be there in order to progress to the point of greatness. Aside from that determination, I find there are five important attributes found in all of the great players.

Stochelo quote

1. Tremendous picking skills — In order to play hyper-virtuoso lines on an acoustic guitar, one must be able to pick (or finger style if you are Paco De Lucia/Sylvain Luc) like a demon. This isn’t something haphazard—THERE ARE RULES. Classical guitar players spend a great deal of time in their early developmental stages just getting the right-hand (if they are right-handed guitar players) into an automated system of where to go and what to do—when. So it is with Gypsy Jazz. They do not just alternate pick their way through the songs but use the “rest stroke” technique combined with extra down strokes and alternate picking depending on the type of line they are playing. While there is not a long list of “what do I do here” moves, there are a few that are specific and must be practiced intensely for a significant amount of time in order to play at blinding tempos with a good tone. While many people are capable of playing fast, playing with good tone is very difficult and of course depends on other factors including guitar, strings, weather conditions etc. But using the rest stroke actually turns the pick into a “small hammer” (Romane) which gives Gypsy Jazz players volume, great tone, and a very percussive effect when picking.

2. Ninja Fretboard Knowledge There is no doubt about it — you must know where everything is on the neck and I mean KNOW — the same way you can find your way from your bed to the bathroom in the pitch dark middle of the night, drunk out of your mind with your hands tied behind your back and headphones on. Joe Pass stressed the importance of this because you can always play faster, better, and easier if you know where you want to go next. Using the above bathroom metaphor, imagine if you didn’t know or weren’t entirely sure where your bathroom was, but you really had to go and there were 400 people in your house at the time. That’s kind of what it’s like to play Gypsy Jazz in front of people. But if the route to the bathroom is completely internalized, and you have alternate routes—in case of fire, plumbing failure, a crowd, or just to impress people, that’s even better. I have already posted on how knowing how arpeggios relate to the chords you are playing against and playing with 2 fingers can simplify the fretboard so you can play in a variety of positions all over the neck. It is also helpful in breaking out of the “box-position” thing that many people do. Stochelo can play runs from the 1st position to the 5th(12-15 fret) at 150 miles an hour. Once you learn how to tie all of the arpeggios together, while you may not be playing at that speed, you certainly will have increased your knowledge of the fretboard and how your notes relate to the music. This means not just the OBVIOUS notes, but all of the not so obvious notes that work if they are played and phrased correctly (chord/note substitutions). Mainstream jazz players are very adept at this and some have genius qualities in how they improvise on the fly in performance. Gypsy jazz musicians are likewise very adept at this and the thinking behind it is simultaneously very complex, but simplified to the point where it is almost instinctive. People have asked Bireli Lagrene questions like “what do you play over dominant chords?” and he will reply “what is a dominant chord?”. Of course he knows what it is and how it functions. What he is saying is that all of the naming conventions and the “this is what I do here” ideas don’t matter.

3. Awesome Bag of Tricks and Licks Guitar and guitar playing has changed, evolved and expanded in scope since the days of Django Reinhardt. Though he was a total master and his playing and compositions sound fresh and modern today, there are more tools for performing and recording and a wider range of influences and styles a guitar player can call upon to achieve his or her dreams. Many jazz and Gypsy Jazz players employ licks and theory from other styles, the blues for example. Stochelo Rosenberg has a wide variety of blues licks at his disposal and the great thing about a blues lick, like your basic arpeggio; you can alter it by changing a few of the notes, the timing or the phrasing to play something that ranges from similar to completely different—over the same phrase or somewhere else in the song. Blues players do this all of the time and jazz players usually build on simple blues lines and chord patterns to make them more complex. He also has modern-sounding licks and some that are based in the style of Paco de Lucia and other flamenco players, and is obviously a fan of flamenco music. He also has a really, really cool vibrato technique. It can be very subtle, mysterious and soft on ballads and very sustaining on more uptempo songs. Personally, I think he has some of the best acoustic vibrato going and that combined with a very strong and stylish ability to bend notes effectively has a lot to do with why he has a very signature sound .

4. Compositional Approach to Playing and Improvising Ultimately, the goal is to be able to construct solos and improvisations that stand on their own as pieces of music. That doesn’t sound controversial, but each person will have different criteria for what constitutes a musical statement. What I like about Stochelo’s playing is the energy and phrasing; he is the Eddie Van Halen of modern gypsy jazz. The speed and fluidity of his lines, all of which make perfect musical sense when slowed down, combined with his great sense of timing and rhythm make for a very exciting musical statement. He is also capable of playing very emotional ballads and has a very good sense of feel that one can find in great jazz, blues and popular music players. Because he also composes his own music, some of it very popular and well-known, like For Sephora*, Gipsy Summer, Double Jeu, Last Minute Swing, Made for Isaac and many others including various waltzes and solo improvisation pieces, there is always a beautiful (my favorite word) ATMOSPHERE to his playing. This doesn’t have to be a fast lick or a complicated theoretical part. In the long run it comes down to playing the perfect part for every measure in the song. Time, focused practice, experience, imagination and thinking of the music (yours or a cover/standard) conceptually will eventually result in an infinite amount of options at your disposal and the ability to make use of the right one at the right time.

5. Excellent Rhythm and Timing While I’ve listed this at number 5, it could just as easily be the most important aspect of playing to focus on, especially if you are a player who doesn’t play with others very much or does not practice with a metronome or along with recorded music. Having a good sense of time is so important and it is definitely something I have to continuously work at. When playing a “chop-heavy” style like gypsy jazz or metal, the difference between someone who can shred really beautiful and powerful lines, and someone who is just wanking away on scales or arpeggios, is usually defined by how the lines are phrased and timed. All of the gypsy jazz pros advocate practicing with a metronome and creating lines with a sense of feeling, dynamics and emotion. While playing along with recorded music is good, it’s also important, in order to develop good improvising skills, to practice your routine (arps, lines, licks, comping, rhythm guitar) with a metronome so you are imbued with a strong sense of where and how to place notes and chords against a beat. This isn’t as easy as it sounds unless you are already very accomplished. You can play very well alone, and then get together with a rhythm section and in front of people and find out just how lacking your skills are. Some people need that awareness to force them to focus on this aspect and I count myself as one of those people. The good thing is that even after just a few weeks playing with a metronome every day and learning to relax when you are playing, you will see definite improvement.

* This is a great version of For Sephora. It looks to me like Stochelo has a little bit of trouble getting started, but by the final chorus he has even gotten a smile and a nod from Nous’che, the rhythm player, who has seen Stochelo do this song a million times. I hear some Al Di Meola stylings in this solo (Mediterranean Sundance). Do you?

A Guitar Master soundchecking/warming up

Stochelo now has his own Online Academy and I would encourage anyone interested in playing Gypsy Jazz to take the free tour and see what they have to offer. Living in the internet age is amazing because you can study with a guy you would never be able to hang with one on one. He is a very in-demand performer and, of course, many people would love to be his students.

1. Interview with Stochelo Rosenberg. Stochelo Rosenberg Part 1. 2005. Page 127.

High on Fire

Posted in Players with tags , , , , , on March 19, 2011 by theguitarcave

High on Fire - The Art of Self-Defense

YEA! High On Fire! The kind of band you go see or put on when you feel like running headfirst into a brick wall! The first time I saw them was in the fall of 2000 at CBGBs, the notorious Bowery club in NYC that no longer exists. It was a metal show, and I knew some of the bands on the (really packed) bill and it ended up being a fantastic time. One of the bands Boulder, had the total Judas Priest thing going on with the Flying V’s and enough Marshall stacks onstage to sink it. I think it took them longer to set up than it did for them to do their set, but they had a real interesting metal/hardcore thing going on complete with the twin leads and twisted vocals and it was pretty good. Acid King played next and were played great and totally impressed me. I bought Busse Woods right after their set. Then High on Fire came on. It was great, I mean like GRRRRRREAT! They played their Man’s Ruin release, The Art of Self-Defense,  and the song Eyes and Teeth, which would be on their 2nd release, Surrounded by Thieves, as well as a Steel Shoe, which I think was on a re-release of their first album after Man’s Ruin folded.

I really dug this version of the band. It never really got any better for me after this, and I know I’m in the minority. HOF started out as Stoner Rock, really groovin’ sludgy riffs and interesting song structures and then by the time their first bass player left and they released their 3rd album, Blessed Black Wings, they turned into a full-on metal band. It was a good move for them I think, as they have been very successful; they’ve made 2 more records and have opened for Metallica in Europe, and that’s pretty friggin’ good. These guys have worked hard and toured a lot and deserve every reward and good vibe that comes their way.

High on Fire - Surrounded by Thieves cover

But the stoner-rock/doom idiom is more interesting to me to listen to, and as a guitar player. I like instrumental approach and the really LONG songs that go through many complex parts and changes. This first time I saw HOF I thought they were Sabbath meets Zeppelin mixed with prog-rock and lo-fi free jazz kind of stuff. Very physical and pummeling for sure, but not the straight-ahead doom or metal played by other bands, even some of the other bands that were on the bill. There was a lot of atmosphere and dynamics and CBGBs was a great place to see a band where the guitarist and bass player were each using 3-4 cabinets. It was LOUD and standing close as I was…RIGHT IN MY FACE. AWESOME! Definitely ranks as one of the best shows ever, and I saw tons of shows at CBGBs over the years. To this day HOF have retained quite a bit of that early diversity and have never sacrificed their pummeling brutal intensity, sound and approach, so I don’t want to give the impression that I think they sold out and would understand if the band would say “hey, we’ve been doing basically the same thing all along,” because in a way, that’s true.

High on Fire-Sleeve image from 1st release

Matt Pike is a guitar monster and has been ever since he was a youngster in the band Sleep. High on Fire, even in the beginning, with drummer Des Kensel and bass player George Rice, had a very pummeling sound. I’ve read in interviews that Matt took a jazz guitar course or two and I think I hear some John McLaughlin in his playing—definitely some Tony Iommi, Dave Murray from Iron Maiden, and Motorhead. There is this space in time where prog-rock, jazz, fusion, stoner rock and metal meet and I think in the early days, and maybe a little bit still, Matt Pike was trying to make ALL of it work for him. Like the main riff from Baghdad is just sick! and the end jam on Master of Fists and parts of  Thraft of Canaan (WTF is a “THRAFT”) sound really jazzy to me, especially the circular style drumming and the guitar soloing. When multiple styles overlap the music becomes very interesting, not only because there is so much ROCK and complex musical inspiration to draw from, but, also, the potential to create completely new hybrids of ideas and combinations is almost limitless. The riffs and songs arrangements tended to be some sub-category of ROCK/METAL but a good deal of the soloing on these discs could be coming from anywhere and I think that’s pretty cool.

High on Fire-Blessed Black Wings

I learned the riffs to the Art of Self-Defense and a band I was in at the time even covered Master of Fists live. Had to drop the guitar tuning down to C for that heavy-riffing sound and just bang along. Lots of clever parts and fun riffs to do—Last, Fireface, 10,000 Years, Baghdad, Master of Fists and Blood From Zion are all total headbangers.  Surrounded by Thieves also had a lot of great stuff on it; Eyes and Teeth, Nemesis and Thraft of Canaan are all brutally beautiful. I did like Blessed Black Wings and the hooks, riffs and execution just kept getting better and better—The Face of Oblivion and Cometh Down the Hessian, Sons of Thunder (which sounds like heavy prog-rock to me) and To Cross the Bridge are just amazing. The recording sounded great, Matt’s lyrics are always totally metal and the album artwork is always really awesome too. I think he’s a guy who wants his music to take the listener somewhere, it’s not all about slaying and pummeling and throwing the horns.

These days Matt plays a custom-made 9 string guitar! How cool is that? With the 3 high strings doubled (like on a 12-string) he can get more “body” and a chorus type of effect without switching on a pedal. Since he does a lot of his riffing Iommi-style, which translates to doing most everything heavy on the 2 low strings, he can crush heavy and also have this very beautiful chorus-type of ring going on simultaneously. Brillianté!

Long may these guys ROCK!

Messing around in the Sun Room

Posted in Movies, Playing on March 19, 2011 by theguitarcave

Here is an example of some licks and runs in E minor. I’ve found there are endless ways to combine the minor with it’s associated dominant (in this case B7) which in Gypsy Jazz is often substituted with a relative diminished or half-diminished run. In other words, use your favorite run in E minor and combine it with a Cdim (also A, F#, Eb).

Rodrigo y Gabriela

Posted in Players with tags , , , , , on March 14, 2011 by theguitarcave

I think this duo is AWESOME. Gabriela’s rhythm technique is especially impressive, Rodrigo is a great picker and they got their start playing Metal. How cool is that? This resonates with me in a personal way because it’s an original approach for headbangers to transition to acoustic music, without losing any of the sophistication, energy, power, technique, virtuosity, and all of the other particulars of metal/hard rock music, while bringing in other influences to create something totally new and different. They cover a lot of well-known hard rock and metal songs and with Gabriela as the rhythm machine and Rodrigo spinning off really tasteful melodic lines and energized styling leads, they are completely self-contained; simple instrumentation with complex arrangements, melodic, yet very percussive, a mix of heaviness and delicacy.

More of them in the future.

Mick Ronson

Posted in Players with tags , , , on March 14, 2011 by theguitarcave

Mick Ronson in Guitar World magazine 1990

Many years ago I had the opportunity to write for Guitar World Magazine. It was a whole lot of fun and over the course of a few years I was able to sit down and talk with some great guitar players, some of whom were legends and others who were young up-and-comers. I’ll be reliving some of these interviews in this blog from time to time and I’m going to start with my favorite, the late, great Mick Ronson. Most people know him as the guitar player for David Bowie during the Ziggy Stardust years, but he was much more than that. When I sat down with him for a couple of hours in late 1989 he was on tour with his long-time buddy Ian Hunter, promoting the Yui Orta album. He was such a super-nice guy it was unbelievable. I was a huge fan of the albums he’d done with David Bowie prior to their big break-out, Ziggy Stardust in 1972 and he was genuinely pleased that I was asking about stuff he did on Hunky Dory and The Man Who Sold the World as well as Ziggy’s successor, Alladin Sane, an album I played out even more than Ziggy Stardust. Aside from being an awesome guitar player, he was heavily involved in the production of not only the Bowie albums, but also, Lou Reed’s Transformer, string arrangements for Pure Prairie League, and this, lifted from Wikipedia, which he and I didn’t even discuss (I don’t really dig John Mellencamp but theUh-huh album was okay, I guess).

“I owe Mick Ronson the hit song, Jack & Diane. Mick was very instrumental in helping me arrange that song, as I’d thrown it on the junk heap. Ronson came down and played on three or four tracks and worked on the American Fool record for four or five weeks. All of a sudden, for ‘Jack & Diane’, Mick said ‘Johnny, you should put baby rattles on there.’ I thought, ‘What the fuck does put baby rattles on the record mean? So he put the percussion on there and then he sang the part ‘let it rock, let it roll’ as a choir-ish-type thing, which had never occurred to me. And that is the part everybody remembers on the song. It was Ronson’s idea.” (John Mellencamp, Classic Rock magazine, January 2008, p.61)

That was Mick’s attitude and effectiveness at production and playing. He used his imagination to come with some of the coolest stuff and it resulted in big records, not only for his own band, but others as well. He wasn’t afraid to do or say something outlandish that would leave people scratching their heads…until they actually heard it.

As a journeyman guitarist, he also played with Bob Dylan on the Rolling Thunder tour in 1974, Mott the Hoople, Van Morrison and, he recorded three of his own solo albums. He wasn’t a chops monster, especially considering we talked during the height of the hair metal years, but he could play a great solo if the song demanded it and lots of songs he is on are layered in a way that gives them a very dramatic and symphonic sound. He embraced the solo as a motif or story within a story theory and that certainly helped with his writing and production roles. Sometimes guitar players just wanna play too much.

He also, during the course of our conversations, told me of his great love of punk rock because of the energy and the willingness to try new things. He embraced many styles and was a man at home in whatever style he happened to be playing at the time. As it was time to say goodbye I mentioned that I was recording with my EV punk band that day and he started asking me questions! How cool is that? Mick Ronson asking “what’s the studio like? How many tracks are you using? etc, etc. We spent another 10-15 minutes talking about the session and I have never gone into a session, before or since, as pumped as I was that day. His one nugget of advice that I have never forgotten was, “don’t be afraid to do something outrageous or spontaneous to get something going. Everything doesn’t have to be planned out.”

It was really sad to hear of his passing a few years later at the young age of 46, but it is beautiful to see that the influence he had on many people has not faded away and I feel lucky to have been in his presence, if only for a couple of hours. The following three examples show the profound range of abilities he had as a guitar player in dramatically different settings.

Moonage Daydream live with Bowie

The beautiful Sweet Dreams

Mick talks Guitar!!